How to put a crewmember aloft on a sailboat


Why frigging in the rigging is not a good idea.

Part of the Dem Bones should learn to sail and quit explicating lyrics series.

What you will need to go aloft:

Actually, nothing except yourself. That is, nothing except yourself if you have a deathwish. Sending someone aloft used to be done by freeclimbing up netting and lines setup throughout the masts, booms and spars. Back in the good ol' days, a lot of people got hurt when their ship swayed in the waves and wind and they fell to the water - or worse - the deck. Even today, sending someone aloft is a very dangerous, complex evolution (probably the most hazardous on the boat) but is actually very unlikely to end in injury if done correctly. So all of the following equipment is optional, but just remember: what goes up must come down. You don't have to come down safely.

  • Some sort of harness or seat that will allow you to climb or get raised up into the rigging. Essentially, there are three options:
    • Harnesses Typically used by racing sailors, these offer the most mobility, and allow you to move side to side, not just up and down. Plus, you can't fall out of a harness, so they're very safe. The downside is that you have to climb- getting raised in a harness hurts a lot, because all of the pressure of your weight is directed at your groin. But once you're up, you can "sit" in mid-air, and the harness is fairly comfortable. A lot of the professional foredeck sailors will actually wear a rock climbing harness for its maximum mobility.
    • Bosuns' Chairs Typically used by crusing sailors, these are easily the most comfortable, but because you sit on it, you can't swing out to the sides of the rigging (you must stay against the mast), or else the chair tips over and you take a fast descent.
    • Self Climbing Used by sailors who do not have a crew member to help them get aloft, especially singlehanded sailors. You strap into the harness, or sit in the chair, like the previous two options, but instead of being raised or climbing up the mast like a monkey, you step up and down on two loops attached to the halyard. This motion causes you to climb up the halyard like a rope ladder. Although very safe, and useful when you're alone, it takes a long time to climb up.
  • Locking carabiners This is how you are going to attach yourself to the halyards. You need one for each line that you will attach to yourself. Usually, this means two carabiners. Carabiners are nice because you can attach yourself and unattach yourself from your halyard or halyards to untangle yourself. You must use a locking carabiner because non-locking carabiners have a tendency to slip when bumped, which will result in your sudden unattachment from the lines holding you up, which results in a sudden elevator ride to the deck below. A good load ratio on the carabiners is usually 24 kilonewtons tension by 7 kilonewtons compression. Anything more isn't dangerous or advantageous, but will cost more than you need to spend to get safety.
  • A good serrated-blade crew knife Every sailor should have one in case something gets tangled up, including you.
  • A self-inflating offshore personal floatation device (PFD) I won't go aloft without one. If you fall off, and land in the water, chances are good you will not be conscious, and therefore unable to swim. I prefer self-inflating vests because the extra bulk of a foam PFD only catches in the rigging, which is a major safety issue.

Additionally, depending on what you're doing in the rigging, you may want to take additional equipment such as a small drawstring pouch, which you can attach to your harness or seat, allowing you to carry small items up and down, and tools. If you desire to take hand tools aloft, then they should be tethered to you somehow. Personally, I took a bunch of metal hooks and epoxied them to the tools. Then I attached them to me using quickdraw carabiners. One end of the "dog bone" runs through the tool and one end attaches to my harness. That way, the tool you need is always right there, and won't get dropped on an unsuspecting crewmate down below.

The fine print

Going aloft is still fairly dangerous, even if everyone is experienced and procedure is followed. "Friggin in the riggin" clearly is not a good idea. First, the effect of the heel of the boat is magnified at the heights of the masthead, and the weight at the masthead of a crewmember aloft increases the actual heel because it creates a huge moment arm on the boat. Consider the International America's Cup Class boat. It has a masthead height of 110 feet, and a beam of 15 feet. That means that at a heel angle of just 8 degrees, at the top of the mast, you're now over water instead of over the boat. Incidentally, an 8 degree heel is very small- most of the time when you're racing upwind, you'll heel at least 20 degrees. Needless to say, if one person can cause such an effect on the boat, you probably don't want two people up there.

Second, stuff breaks. The probability of your gear failing is small, but if it happens, chances are you will suffer serious injury and probably death. More likely though is crew error resulting in unexpected failure. See Climbing tales of terror for examples of this, and just replace "rock", "mountain" or "climbing wall" with "aluminium mast". It happens, and the best way to prevent it from happening to you is attention to detail and respect for the limitations of your equipment. Inspect it regularly, and don't be abusive towards your equipment when you're using it. Returning to the general theme of reasons "carnal relations on the runners" might be a really bad idea, most halyards are designed for static loads. So while a halyard holds thousands of pounds of force generated by the sails, it doesn't hold nearly as much weight when forces are dynamic, such as generated by bouncing the halyard. The same can be said of ballistic nylon (such as the material used in harnesses) and anodized metal (such as in carabiners and the halyard shackle).

Now comes the fun part!

Send the crew member aloft using the following procedure, adapted from United States Navy Publication DNASINST3120.1D.804.3: Standard Operating Procedures for the Navy 44 Sail Training Craft:

  1. Instruct all personnel involved with the evolution in matters of safety of crew and vessel, and establish a work plan to minimize the amount of time crew members must be aloft.
  2. Ensure that the bosun's chair or harness has at least two locking carabiners run through the D-ring. Using one halyard per carabiner, tie a bowline such that the loop passes through the carabiner, then secure the snap shackle on the halyard to the halyard's working end. In total, at least two halyards should be used, with an optional third halyard run down, rather than up to control movement away from the mast.
  3. Man each halyard with two crewmembers, one to smoothly pull the halyard in rhythm, and one to tail the slack on the halyard through a winch. Designate one winch to be the primary halyard, and the other to be the secondary (safety) halyard. Keep both halyards tensioned at all times during the evolution to prevent a fall. A fifth crewmember should be posted as a safety observer, having no other job during the evolution. Note: the skipper may see the need to reduce the number of crewmembers involved in the evolution. If this is the case, exercise extreme prudence in relaxing the number of crew involved.
  4. Raise the crewmember aloft. The aloft crewmember should attempt to climb the mast as much as possible to reduce the amount of jerking on the halyards. During the evolution, only the crew member aloft should give orders regarding raising or lowering the halyards.
  5. Once the crewmember reaches the desired height, secure the halyards through at least a cleat, and preferably the winches' self-tailors. Move the crew clear of the mast in the event something drops during work.
  6. While you're up there, take in the view (it's almost 12 miles to the horizon if the skies are clear), enjoy the breeze, and relish in the thrill that you can't get much closer to flying without worrying about getting back down! Oh, wait, you mean you didn't want to stay up there for the rest of the cruise? Sorry.
  7. Lower the crewmember, hand over hand- not by letting the halyard run freely through your hands- until the crewmember is safely on deck.
  8. Remove all gear, and secure the halyards used during the evolution. You just looked death and calamity in the eyes, and smirked. Oh yeah, and you fixed your sailboat, too. Congratulations!